Albert Joseph Pénot was an Academic artist whose work veered into the erotic and occult. Like his spiritual sibling Luis Ricardo Falero, the false Duke of Labranzano, Pénot’s work is marked by his facination with the curves of the nude female form to the exclusion of almost everything else. His immaculate, entirely idealized women recline, float and fly through the ether on broomsticks, walking the line between pinup exploitation and, in the case of his most well-known work, La Femme Chauve-Souris, The Bat Woman—a sort of empowered ferocity.
Pénot was born in the Xermaménil commune in north-eastern France to Laurent Pénot, a courier, and Rosalie Grandjean, a cook. Pénot seems to have been a family man, marrying the daughter of a local watchmaker, Charlotte Ernestine Jeanne Nayem, at age 20, and later having two children, Louise and André. I've not been able to find much in the way of biographical information, but it seems that at some point before 1896, Pénot moved his family to Paris where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts.
And here we discover it’s no accident that Pénot’s occult-tinged nudes call to mind Luis Falero’s otherworldly women. As the keystone of their academic education, both artists studied under the Orientialist painter Gabriel Ferrier. Falero was eleven years older than Pénot, and likely studied with Ferrier before Pénot arrived, but he must have left his mark on the studio, because like Falero, Pénot rejected the opulant backgrounds of their orientalist teacher, preferring to set his nude figures in abstracted misty landscapes or suspended in cloudy chiaroscuro skies.
While Pénot never rose to the soaring heights of the Academic giants like William Adolphe Bouguereau or Alexandre Cabanel (who rendered their nudes in detailed settings), it seems that Pénot won some minor acclaim, winning an honorable mention in the 1903 Salon des Artistes Francais. In 1906, the La Croix newspaper reported that Pénot received the national commendation Ordre des Palmes académiques, ‘Order of Academic Palms,’ an award recognizing distinguished academics and valuable service to universities. And in 1908, he won third place in Salon des Artistes Francais. Not bad, Pénot.
What I find facinating about Pénot, and many of the b-tier Academic artists, is how their artwork will occasionally re-emerge. For instance, you've probably seen The Bat Woman at some point. She appears in Google image searches for gothic art, pops up in tattoos, and had a cameo in the TV show “What we do in the Shadows” as a representation of the Romani vampire Nadja. While artists like Pénot and Falero have fallen outside the canon of historically ‘great artists’ many of them were low-key successful in their day, running businesses, paying rent, and putting food on the table with their art. And occasionally one of their works hits a nerve centuries later, reappearing, usually uncredited, to haunt the fringes of the popular conciousness.
Got questions, comments or corrections about Albert Joseph Pénot? Join the conversation in the Obelisk chat room, and if you enjoy content like this, consider becoming a member to unlock exclusive essays, downloadables, and discounts at the Obelisk Store.
Reed Enger, "Albert Joseph Pénot, Have you seen this bat-woman before?," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 17, 2021; last modified September 17, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/albert-joseph-penot/.